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Tilda Bowden, Lucy alumna and  Creative Writing editor of the Lucy Writers’ Platform, on teaching in prison and the power of creative collaboration

Tilda Bowden
        Tilda Bowden

I have always found the de-brief through words a vital part of understanding and making my way through life. Before embarking on my MSt Creative Writing at Cambridge University, I had worked as a copywriter, travel journalist, part-time novelist and short story writer. Through undertaking the MSt, I reasoned, I would find writing easier and perhaps find a straighter path to follow. Looking back, while my aims seem woefully misguided, the impulse to study Creative Writing led to a whole new set of objectives and a different path.

In my cohort, seventeen of eighteen students were women and Lucy Cavendish my college home. This extreme gender disparity was an opportunity to look at the differences in gender in an observational way.

Years before, I’d visited a friend imprisoned in a maximum-security Kenyan jail. We discussed how he could write about the spectrum of his prison experience; the humour and fellowship, as well as the despair and senseless violence. Although my friend sadly died before he had the chance to write about his time in prison, my impulse to help others to understand their lives better through words did not.

At Cambridge, I was struck by the privilege of freedom to learn. It encouraged me to think about teaching creative writing to prisoners in Kenya. My time at Lucy helped me make the gender imbalanced decision to work with women.

Langata Women’s Maximum-Security Prison is a sprawling prison community surrounding the prison block which teeters on the edge of Kibera slums in Nairobi. The various checkpoints and doorways from outside to inside tightens the grip until one arrives at the iron gates to the inner prison with all informality stripped back.

I was anxious teaching my first class, but even on that first day, it was clear there was a lot I could learn from my weekly lessons inside.

See my earlier post The Tyger Women of Langata Women’s Maximum-Security Prison, Kenya

Almost two years later, I feel my experiences in prison have given me more than I’ve given. The prisoners I initially found intimidating are now people I know and value.

My class co-wrote a radio play earlier this year for the BBC radio play competition. We didn’t win, but the experience was rewarding for the students nonetheless; another vital lesson for us all about the power of creative collaboration.

Tilda Bowden
Painting by a student from Langata Women's prison 'Writing my Path to Freedom'

Some class members have been released, one has died, but all of them now see themselves as ‘Writer’ when they describe themselves. Their poems, songs, plays and short stories are mainstays of prison talent contests and shows, and our students have built a reputation for creative talents; a showcase of the prison’s rehabilitation rather than punishment approach.

For the students, the possibility of being heard is extremely important. Our blog, Beyond the Sentence  helps get their voices from inside out into the world. Our work in the prison is not so much a talent search but a way of walking with our students, hearing them and encouraging the idea that they are more than just a number or the perpetrator of a crime.

While some of my students are guilty, I believe some are not, and their crimes are predominantly crimes of poverty. None of them was able to afford the legal representation that would have seen them walk free. I am under no illusions that the prison system will be changed by teaching creative writing, but I have seen a change in the mindset of wardens towards our students and respect for their work. Most importantly, the most significant change is in my students who tell us they find mental and emotional freedom through their creative writing.

Meanwhile, my own novel languishes in the crappy first draft stage. However, where I set out to find what MSt Creative Writing could do for my writing, it has led me to be able to give creative support to others; an unpredicted but rewarding outcome.

About Tilda Bowden

Tilda Bowden is the Creative Writing editor of the Lucy Writers’ Platform. She is currently running a creative writing workshop in Kenya at a maximum-security women's prison in Nairobi, as well as working on a historical fictional novel based on the life of British sculptor Kathleen Scott. Her work has been shortlisted for the Louis de Bernières Fiction Prize and the Lucy Cavendish Chronicle Fiction Prize. She writes poetry and short-stories and, like many writers, edits for a number of upcoming fiction writers. Tilda is always involved in numerous creative projects and collaborating with artists from diverse backgrounds. 

Top painting by a student from Langata Women's prison 'Mind be Free'